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March 5, 2005

All-voice Who tribute goes miles and miles

Los Angeles Times (CA):

It's not exactly that Petra Haden isn't taking this thing seriously. It's just that it was really a private project taken on as an exercise, and she had no intention of playing it for anyone except friends, primarily Mike Watt, the Los Angeles musician who challenged her to try it in the first place. Anyway, who in the world would want a start-to-finish, home-recorded re-creation of the Who's classic 1967 album "The Who Sell Out," done entirely a cappella, with Haden's multitracked singing emulating every instrumental and vocal line of the original? Especially when her results weren't exactly state of the art. That's why Haden, one of jazz musician Charlie Haden's triplet daughters and a longtime presence on L.A.'s pop and experimental music scene, can't quite get her head around the way this thing is taking on a life of its own.

"I played it for Watt over the phone," she says. "He said, 'Great, now put it out.' And I thought, 'Are you serious?' ... It's really lo-fi. I was reading the lyrics and you could hear the paper crinkling, you could hear tape noise. I recorded some of the tracks wrong and my voice wasn't all there, like I recorded it underwater." But after a little Pro Tools cleanup and a touch of reverb, the CD of "Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out" was released last week by the independent label Bar/None, and now she has a new set of concerns. "I'm kind of nervous about what these die-hard Who fans are going to think," she says, fretting her way through lunch at a deli near her sister Tanya's MacArthur Park-area home. "Like, they're going to want to kill me."

Not the Who fan who matters most. "I heard the songs as if for the first time, and I was really pleased to hear how beautiful they are," says the Who's Pete Townshend. "In many cases Petra has released nuances that might be lost to the casual listener to the Who's album. For example, the vocal harmonies on 'I Can See for Miles' are carefully analyzed, and you hear all the parts.... "She's so smart, because she listened first to what was on the original record before she started her own thesis with it. That is such a gift for one musician to give another to really listen."

"The Who Sell Out" is Townshend's favorite Who album, an opinion shared by many fans of the English band. Simultaneously a celebration and a spoof of the era's pop radio experience and the youth culture it embodied, it stitched together a set of varied songs with original jingles for Radio London and comical commercials for such products as Odorono deodorant. Musically, the album brought out a lot of the Who's Beach Boys side, as well as touches of music hall and even some jazz vocals. There were seeds of "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia" in the project, and though the album wasn't a commercial hit, the taut, explosive "I Can See for Miles" became the Who's only U.S. Top 10 single.

Watt's challenge struck Haden as "off the wall," but to Townshend the undertaking made perfect sense. "The original Who album was a crazy concept, and Petra's action is equally nuts," says the musician, responding by e-mail to questions on the project. "Take a load of talent and chance it on an art-school exercise in installation recording. I really feel she has done something entirely new here.... I love this CD and Petra puts me in an Odorono sweat."

Haden, 33, who had never listened to the album before she started her remodeling, says that "when I first heard it, it sounded kind of like Gilbert & Sullivan. The commercials, that wasn't rock. That was just like playtime." Teaching herself to use Watt's eight-track recorder as she went along, Haden echoed the process she'd used on her 1996 album, "Imaginaryland," an a cappella work that originated with Steve Reich-like stacking of vocals.

Over the years, she has ranged freely from such experimentation to the somewhat more conventional pop turf of That Dog, a band that included her sister Rachel, and released three albums on Geffen's DGC label in the mid-'90s. But for all those credits, "The Who Sell Out" looks like the project to nudge her out of the wings and closer to center stage.

"We're getting incredible press response," says Glenn Morrow, owner of Hoboken, N.J.-based Bar/None. "Some records you don't get any reaction, but I'm feeling the love out there, the kind of kinetic buzz you know, people calling up going, 'Why isn't this at Vintage Vinyl? I need it immediately.' "

And now even the reluctant artiste is getting into the spirit. Haden is assembling a female choir to perform the album live at least a couple of times. "So far it's six people, but I want nine or 10. We practiced 'I Can See for Miles' about a week ago. It turned out so good that I almost cried...."I still have my insecurities about the record," she says. "Every day I still think of something I could have done better. But I did it, now it's here, and I'm just going for the ride."

Posted by acapnews at March 5, 2005 12:47 AM